Raimondo budget tweaks funding formula, targets charter schools

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo believes she has finally solved the conflict between Rhode Island’s school districts and its public charter schools.

The budget proposal put forth by Raimondo Tuesday aims to tweak the state’s school funding formula so that school districts will be able to hold on to $350 per student every time a child chooses to attend a charter school, a policy designed to “level the playing field” between traditional public schools and charters.

Raimondo has also asked the General Assembly to give school districts that send more than 5% of their students to charter schools – namely Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Woonsocket, Cumberland and Lincoln – an additional $300 per student to cover fixed costs that remain with the districts even when students leave.

“Tonight I propose a revised funding formula that maintains the importance of ‘money following the child,'” Raimondo said during her annual State of the State address. “But it also levels the playing field between district and charter schools so that all schools can thrive. It provides that when a student moves from a district school to a charter school, some of the money stays behind at the district school.”

Full Text/Video: Gov. Raimondo's State of the State address »
Full Text/Video: Gov. Raimondo’s State of the State address »

The governor’s funding formula changes are part of a broader education agenda that includes an additional $52.8 million for schools and programs that include the expansion of state-funded pre-K, free SAT exams for every high school student, professional development for teachers and principals, and schoolhouse repairs.

But for all the additional investments the governor wants to make in education, it’s the adjustments to the five-year-old funding formula that will likely generate the most discussion as the General Assembly considers Raimondo’s budget in the coming months.

The charter-related changes are designed to address concerns of public school districts whose leaders have for years complained that while the 2010 creation of the school funding formula was designed to allow money to “follow the child” no matter where they attended public school, fixed costs like pension and healthcare obligations have remained with the sending districts.

The R.I. House of Representatives has already approved two bills this year that call for city and town councils from sending districts to approve any new charter schools and require the R.I. Department of Education to find that new or expanding charter schools would not have a detrimental effect on the finances of a sending district.

Raimondo, who is considered a supporter of charter schools, has said she does not support either bill. It’s unclear if her proposal will stop the Senate from moving forward with the bills.

Under Raimondo’s plan, the bulk of money spent on each student would still follow the child to charter schools, but districts would be allowed to keep $350 per child. All told, charter schools would face a $3.6-million reduction under the changes.

Elsa Dure, the CEO of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, said she is taking a wait-and-see approach with the governor’s proposal.

“The proposed cuts to public charter schools raise concerns for mayoral academies,” Dure said. “Each mayoral academy will be evaluating the impact of these proposed cuts and how they would have to adjust. Blackstone Valley Prep alone will see a decrease of $560,000 in one year, as the reductions are not phased in.”

The districts that see at least 5% of their students attend charter schools would receive $300 per student from the state, a boost of about $2.6 million to those districts.

The proposed changes to the formula also include an increase in the amount the state kicks in for high-cost special needs students, from $2.5 million in the current fiscal year to $4.5 million beginning July 1. For English-language learners, the state will add $5 million over the next two fiscal years as long as districts demonstrate that they’re using the funds to benefit those students specifically.

“Our proposal boosts resources for schools with students who have greater needs,” Raimondo said. “But we’re only going to pay for what works. So if schools want the extra money, they have to adopt proven best practices.”

All of the modifications to the funding formula were recommended in a report issued last month by a 29-member working group appointed by the governor. The group was tasked with identifying alterations that needed to be made without adding significant amounts of new spending. The changes will cost the state an additional $7.1 million in the next fiscal year.

Raimondo’s budget continues the larger phase-in of the funding formula by providing another $30 million to districts across the state. Her plan also strengthens the so-called “maintenance of effort” requirement that prohibits school districts from cutting local funding to education. Districts would be required to increase funding to cover the rate of inflation or enrollment increases.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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